Culture | Not with a bang but a whimper

The unhappy family in August: Osage County

Content Warnings: mentions of suicide and substance abuse

August: Osage County by Dawson College Productions ran from January 23 to February 4. The Pulitzer-winning play by Tracy Letts chronicles a tumultuous time in the life of an Oklahoma family. The play opens with protagonist Violet Weston’s elderly husband, Beverley, committing suicide just before their children and grandchild come to visit, forcing the family to confront their dark, hidden realities.

The cast members, part of Dawson College’s professional acting program, performed an impressive show against a simple, handmade backdrop. Props were also eliminated from this production, inviting the audience to imagine the action as the characters realistically imitated smoking, physical fighting between family members, and eating a post-funeral meal. By simplifying and decluttering theatrical technicalities, the actor’s heightened creativity, attention to detail, and complex acting was able to be better appreciated.

[The play] asked its audience to consider the importance and complexities of personal relationships, mental health and the effects of drug use, and the implications of dysfunctional family dynamics – without presenting a way to reconcile these elements.

August, comprised of a predominantly female cast, explores the relationships between women in the family – and specifically investigates the complexities of family and mental health, the process of grief, and the realities of addiction. Barbara, Violet’s eldest daughter, exemplifies support and loyalty in how she handles Violet’s drug addiction. She is encouraging without being patronizing or forceful, but she also does not let her mother suffer in silence. She opens up discussion of the drug use and suggests possibilities for recovery, while juggling her own divorce from a cheating husband and considering the effects of the divorce on her daughter, Jean. Barbara’s younger sister, Karen, embodies coolness and spunk. She initially seems silly and even ignorant of her family’s hardships, but throughout the play, she embraces growth as she experiences harassment from her fiance and learns to be a more present sister, daughter, and aunt.

Violet suffers from mouth cancer due to excessive smoking, but then becomes addicted to her medication and more intense substances. The play carefully approaches the topic of drug addiction, conveying through Beverley’s suicide and the family’s subsequent focus on Violet in her time of grief, that it is possible to recover with support from loved ones. However, the play also sheds light on the effects of toxic family dynamics on one’s mental health. Throughout the play, Violet’s daughters often gaslight and criticize her, excusing their behaviour with the fact of her addiction.

August, comprised of a predominantly female cast, explores the relationships between women in the family – and specifically investigates the complexities of family and mental health, the process of grief, and the realities of addiction.

At first, August seemingly relies on racialized and gendered stereotypes in its portrayal of Johnna, the Indigenous nanny and housekeeper serving a white family. She is initially servile, spiritual, and financially reliant on the Weston family, who assume the position of white saviours. However, as her character develops, the play seems to show reverence and respect for Indigenous traditions. In one scene, Johnna shows Jean, the Weston’s teenage granddaughter, photos from her parents’ wedding. Jean compliments their “costumes,” and Johnna explains to Jean, and the audience, the cultural significance of her parents’ marriage ceremony. This gave the character a voice and the opportunity to reclaim representation of her identity from the mouths of the white Weston family.

August: Osage County dealt with provocative elements that, at times, forayed into dark, heavy moments. It asked its audience to consider the importance and complexities of personal relationships, mental health and the effects of drug use, and the implications of dysfunctional family dynamics – without presenting a way to reconcile these elements. Instead, it closes on an ambiguous note as Violet weeps into the arms of Johnna, the two of them alone together indefinitely, stating the closing line from T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men: “this is the way the world ends.”


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